Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Equinoctial Hauntings

Neil’s comments on landscape as character in the second instalment of his Nosferatu reflections (an inappropriate phrase given the subject matter) combined with recent conversations with Helene, the doyenne of the Oxfam bookshop, got me to thinking about Paul Nash. Nash was an artist who worked during both world wars. He recorded the blasted WW1 landscapes of mud and splintered trunk in paintings such as The Menin Road and located the wrecked fragments of WW2 fighter planes as flotsam and jetsam in sea and on shore in pictures like Totes Meer. But it’s his paintings of particular landscapes which evoke their atmosphere of immanence, of a strange power waiting to be unearthed in the English topography, which I feel a particular connection to. They summon up the idea of a genius loci. This is now generally thought of as the ‘spirit of place’ in a figurative sense, but once bore a more literal meaning, referring to the guardian or god of a particular locale. This guardian might somehow be both guardian of place and the place itself. There are certain landscape features which you can certainly imagine becoming animated and casting off unwelcome intruders, much as the Clashing Rocks would crush passing ships in Greek mythology (and, let’s face it, the Harryhausen Jason and the Argonauts, from whence much of my classical knowledge derives).

Nash felt this power in several locations during his lifetime and produced a series of paintings, prints or photographs in each. During the twenties, Nash and his wife Margaret lived at Dymchurch on the East Sussex coast. The works he produced here evoke the bleak, haunted quality of this unforgiving stretch of coastline. Nash himself had a breakdown whilst living here, perhaps having inherited some of the severe depression suffered by his mother, whose early death may have been occasioned by it. It’s certainly a landscape which can appear like an externalisation of a depressive state, with its flat expanses stretching to a featureless horizon beneath slate skies. The geometrical lines of the groines and sea walls serve to delineate the meeting point of man-made and natural worlds, the straight lines of concrete meeting the curvature of the waves.

In a painting from this period finished at a later date, Winter Sea, this divide has become much less clearly drawn, the sea itself moving in lines of straight geometry. It is as if it has become gelid and moves through the slow time of a post-catastrophic event. If figures are found on the stark gray linearity of the constructed shore they are insubstantial, semi-transparent spectres, who seem to glide across the flat surfaces toward us.

Inevitably, my mind turns to the MR James stories set on the East Anglian coastline, ‘O, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and ‘A Warning To The Curious’. Both detail the outcomes of ill-advised amateur archaeological dabblings. In the first, having foolishly blown the whistle which he has unearthed in the old Templar ruins, he has the following distressing vision; ‘a long stretch of shore – shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water....The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. Then, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back.’ The cause of this fear-fuelled flight is soon revealed; ‘now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying.’

In 'A Warning to the Curious' (a title which could be used for many of James’ stories) the protagonist lives (for a short time) to regret digging up one of the crowns of the Anglo-Saxon kings left as talismans to ward off invasion, as he finds the old line of guardians are still alive – in a fashion. At the end of the story, his acquaintances follow his footsteps in the sand, which are followed by those of his pursuer, which ‘showed more bones than flesh’. This desperate and doomed attempt to flee his fate is played out against the bleak vista between the houses of the village and the old martello tower. ‘When you are past the tower...there is nothing but shingle for a long way – not a house, not a human creature, just that spit of land, or rather shingle, with the river on your right and the sea on you left. Just before that, just by the martello tower...there is the old battery, close to the sea. I believe there are only a few blocks of concrete left now.’ This sense of a haunted landscape, one where the past is a palpable presence, is one which Nash and James evidently share. It is a felicitous coincidence that some of Nash’s paintings and prints can be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum, the collections of which James was once curator.

Nash also drew inspiration from the megalithic sites of the South West, and particularly from Avebury. His watercolour ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’ from 1937 depicts the stones receding towards the horizon (and on to infinity?) along the contour lines of the field, with the conical mound of Silbury Hill reduced to little more than a molehill in the background. In the foreground, the snakelike stem of a dandelion, intertwined with a twisting convulvulus, rises before the stones, attaining an equivalence of mass and force. Or perhaps this is a serpent, and the seed-head the sun. The serpent and the sun can both be seen as symbols of life and the cycles of nature. The character of the place itself, in which the traces of ancient inhabitation and the forms of nature create a harmonious composition, provides a ready made symbolic guide as to the way man works his own transformations on the landscape but is also created by it, ultimately achieving a form of immortality by becoming part of it. Nash himsef wrote, in the journal Unit One, ‘I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge at hand, the white trumpet of a convulvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation’.

The avenue would be Kennet Avenue, which runs from the circle to the sanctuary at Overton. This landscape was used as the thinly disguided setting of Milbury in the 1977 drama Children of the Stones. Filmed in the scorching heat of 76, this is inextricably bound up with my childhood memories of summers which seemed to unfold in suspended time. Thankfully, on reviewing it, I found that none of its recalled magic had dissipated and that it was now overlaid with a patina of nostalgia for a world gone by. It shows an awareness of the myths and theories surrounding Avebury, particularly the idea that the circle combined with the West Kennet avenue and burial mound, the Overton sanctuary and Silbury Hill forms the pattern of a coiled serpent. This would make it the genuine genius loci of the surrounding countryside, both the guardian of the place and the place itself. The story plays with the idea of circular time, of recurring events played out with the same cast, who are in some sense also a part of the landscape. The idea of the serpent as the symbol of rebirth and life (due to its shedding of a succession of skins) gives our heroes Adam and his son Matt their route out of the enclosed loop of story. They are guided to this escape by a painting which depicts the serpent as a road along which two people are fleeing from a pillar of consuming fire which is transforming a circle of dancers into stone.

Nash found another inspirational site in Gloucestershire which he referred to as the ‘monster field’. This was a farmer’s field in which two trees had been blown down by a storm. Their recumbent forms, weather-worn and denuded of bark in some places, seemed to him to resemble the skeletal forms of mythic beasts. They are in a sense the genius loci risen and become ambulant, dragging its woody bones across the fields. Nash describes them thus: ‘both trees were by now bleached to a ghastly pallor wherever the bark had broken and fallen away. At a distance, in sunlight, they looked literally dead-white, but, at close range, their surfaces disclosed many inequalities of tone and subtle variety of ashen tints. Also, in many places the bark still clung, a rich, dark plum-coloured brown. Here and there the smooth bole, gouged by the inveterate beetle, let out a trickle of yellow dust which mingled with the red earth of the field’.

Nash created several ‘monster studies’ in photographs, oils and watercolours. These monsters become strangely denatured, or at least distanced from their original tree forms, an opposite effect to his depiction of the wreckage of planes as the husks of dismembered body parts lying amongst and oddly unified with nature. The watercolour Monster Shore finds one of these beasts looking down at the swelling tide as if wondering whether to dive in and disappear from the world forever. Kingsley Amis’ novel The Green Man ends with the terrifying apparition of a creature constituted from the matter of the woodland. It may very well be a more sprightly incarnation of Nash’s monsters, sap still freely flowing.

Nash’s essay Unseen Landscapes published in Country Life magazine in 1938 expresses some of his feelings about the spirit of place. He describes three landscapes which have awoken a particular resonance with him. The first is the White Horse of Uffington, which he distinguishes from other white horses and chalk hill figures. The foreshortening and odd perspectives gained by walking towards it are what attracts him. He describes how ‘the landscape asserts itself with all the force of its triumphant fusion of natural and artificial design. You then perceive a landscape of terrific animation whose bleak character and stark expression accord perfectly with its lonely situation on the summit of the bare downs’.

He also notes a ‘room of a partly demolished house, where the front wall has been pulled down, so that now the sun and moon traverse the floor and walls as in a wood, and the dilapidated uprights and broken sections of door-frames, obscured by shadows or mutilated by shafts of light, take on the semblance of tree forms; the sentinels, perhaps, of a forest land’. This vision is realised in several paintings, including The Three Rooms from 1936-7.

The idea of landscapes existing within houses is partly a poetic idea about the mansions of the imagination, a vein of imagery which Mervyn Peake mined in many of his poems. It is also used as the entrance to the faerie world in George Macdonald’s 1858 novel Phantastes. He describes how the everyday appurtenances of his protagonist’s Victorian home are transformed into the forms of nature; ‘I saw that a large green marble basin, in which I was accustomed to wash, and which stood on a low pedestal...in the corner of the room, was overflowing like a spring; and that a stream of clear water was running over the carpet all the length of room, finding its outlet I knew not where. And, stranger still, where this carpet, which I had myself designed to imitate a field of grass and daisies, bordered the course of the little stream, the grassblades and daisies seemed to wave in a tiny breeze that followed the water’s flow; while under the rivulet they bent and swayed with every motion of the changeful current’. His oak dressing table, with its carved ivy leaves, undergoes a similar transformation. ‘I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakably ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers. Hearing next a slight motion above me, I looked up, and saw that the branches and leaves designed upon the curtains of my bed were slightly in motion.’ With the unruffled practicality of the Victiorian Englishman, he decides that he’d better get dressed, and ‘I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree, whose top waved in the golden stream of the sunrise with many interchanging lights.’ A similar landscape of the domestic interior is to be found in China Mieville’s recent novel Un Lun Dun, in which an ordinary terraced house contains an dense jungle, with a river running down the staircase whose source, naturally enough, is in the toilet.

The third landscape which Nash describes is that of Maiden Castle at the time when it was being excavated by archaeologists. He describes the skeletons which were discovered there; ‘the sun beat down on the glinting white bones which were disposed in elegant clusters and sprays of blanched springs and branches. Or some seem to be the nests of giant birds; the gleaming skulls like clutches of monstrous eggs. It was a place, with these scattered groups of fantastic nests and long raised ledges on the open hills, resembling a bird sanctuary. A sanctuary for moas.’ This depiction of the bones of the earth is both literal and conveys a sense of the geological strata of time which can also be rediscovered and perhaps even reawakened. The megaliths which Nash loved to paint, directly or in ‘equivalent’ form, also resemble bones protruding from the earth. As such, they are manifestations of deeper, usually hidden chthonic forces, which perhaps lends these sites some of their magnetic power.


The specific view with which Nash is perhaps best associated is that of Wittenham Clumps, an archetypically English hill topped with a cluster of beech trees. Nash painted these in his youth and returned to them towards the end of his life. He had always suffered from bad health and had an increasingly accute asthmatic illness. Going outside became increasingly difficult, and he had to stay indoors at a friend’s house in Boar’s Hill near Oxford to paint his late pictures of the Clumps. He viewed the hills through binoculars, perhaps contributing to the flattening and foreshortening of the elements of the landscape.

M.R.James’ story A View from a Hill also features a character who views a landscape through binoculars. These allow the viewer to glimpse visions of the past, the spirit of the place made manifest. Unsurprisingly, this comes at a cost. The maker of the glasses has manufactured their visionary qualities through the addition of a distillation fashioned from boiled down bones which he had dug up from Gallows Hill. Unfortunately, the former users of these bones are none too happy about this, and black crows gather once more around the Hill. Gallows Hill itself is described thus: ‘a rather sudden knob of a hill with a thick wood on top of it...in a dead line with that single tree on the top of the big ridge.’ It sounds not dissimilar to the Wittenham Clumps.

With a keen awareness of mortality, he imbued this view with a personal symbolism which related both to himself and to his wife Margaret. His equinoctial pictures feature both the sun and moon, each casting their own light onto the different sections of the painting. Following the traditional symbology (he’d been reading The Golden Bough) Paul was the sun and Margaret the moon. Increasingly, the sun was depicted as a blood red disc setting behind the hill, the moon rising high on the other side. The clumps themselves are initially seen as two separate entities, but they draw together over the series of pictures, until eventually they are one indivisible form. There are also the entrances to dark tunnels beneath (and perhaps going into) the hill, passages to some otherworld, perhaps.

The monumental forms of mushrooms and sunflowers recur in these late pictures too, representing death and life respectively. The landscape itself holds out some promise of rebirth and re-union for Paul and Margaret, then. In inscribing himself and his wife into the elements of the surrounding nature and its cycles, Nash revives old pagan notions of the imperishable human spirit becoming part of these patterns of eternal return. Certainly, through his art, his memory has become part of the local geology. An immortality of sorts.

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